A first for the Philippines: Zobel gets highest alumni award from Harvard

August 18, 2008

Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, chair and chief executive of Ayala Corp., has become the first Filipino to receive the highest achievement award for a graduate of Harvard Business School.

Zobel is also the youngest alumnus to receive the Alumni Achievement Award from Harvard Business School, which gives the award annually to “distinguished graduates who have contributed significantly to their companies and communities while upholding the highest standards and values.”

According to the award-giving council, “the outstanding men and women who receive this most important honor represent the best in the alumni body and inspire all those who aspire to have an impact on business and society.

Zobel received a Master of Business Administration degree from Harvard Business School in 1987. He had graduated from Harvard College in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in Economics, cum laude.

In between those years, he worked overseas before joining the Ayala group of companies, where he held several line positions.

Today, together with his younger brother Fernando, who serves as president and chief operating officer of Ayala Corp., Zobel is credited for the Ayala group’s successes in telecommunications and water distribution as well as its continued successes in real estate development and financial services.


The first to receive the Harvard Business School Alumni Achievement Award was Robert McNamara, in 1968, when he was president of the World Bank. Other outstanding recipients since then have included Daniel Burke, chair and CEO emeritus of Johnson & Johnson; Dr. Daniel Vasella, chair and CEO of Novartis AG; Ratan Tata, chair of India’s Tata group; Louis Gerstners Jr., former chair and chief executive of IBM; Phillip Yeo, chair of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research; and Minoru Makihara, former chair of Mitsubishi Corp.

To Zobel and this year’s four other recipients, the awards were presented at Harvard on Sept. 27 in a ceremony hosted by Prof. Jay O. Light, dean of Harvard Business School.

The other recipients were Donna Dubinsky of Numenta, an intelligent-computing software firm; A. M. Mixon III of Invacare Corp., the world’s leading manufacturer and distributor of home healthcare products; Sir Martin Sorrell of global advertising company WPP Group PLC; and Hansjoerg Wyss of Synthes Inc., manufacturer and distributor of orthopedic implants and instruments.

Ideal candidate

To Zobel, Professor Light said: “The impact you have had through Ayala Corp. makes you an ideal candidate. This award is a symbol of Harvard’s appreciation of the standard you have set.”

That standard has deep roots in the Ayala group–in the values and principles it stands for, as much as in its history and track record.

It is reflected in a remark Zobel made when he accepted the Management Man of the Year award: “Success is not measured by quick and one-time gains but by enduring beliefs and created by a disciplined approach to creating value. Second, success also entails combining profitability with a broader contribution to society.”

The business successes of the 173-year-old Ayala group are well known, as are its wide-ranging contributions to social development. But not always seen are the ways it has affected countless Filipino lives and many communities.

While Ayala has always chosen to engage itself actively in the national development process, it continues to take this step further by finding solutions to various socioeconomic challenges. Many enterprising Filipinos–from merchants and service providers at the Ayala malls, to microfinance institutions through Bank of the Philippine Islands, and to small entrepreneurs that rely on Globe Telecom Inc. and Manila Water Co. Inc. for their livelihood–are able to nurture their dreams through the Ayala group.

Similarly far-reaching are the group’s sustained actions to promote education in training student leaders, providing elementary education and spearheading the multisector initiative called Gearing up Internet Literacy and Access for Students, or Gilas, which helps to provide Internet access and basic computer literacy programs for students in all Philippine public high schools.

For certain, these social development contributions wouldn’t be possible without the business successes, but the correlation between the two is deliberate, and has been rooted in the Ayala group’s nearly two-century Philippine heritage.

Zobel calls Ayala’s social development work “promoting the public good through the benefits of excellent professional management.”

That is a well-appreciated statement of underlying characteristics that exhibit the conglomerate’s long-term vision and commitment to national development.

The public’s trust

The corporate professionalism and the social commitment have given Ayala a most solid reputation for integrity, and over many decades earned the public’s trust for the Ayala brand.

“Building on trust has enabled us to mobilize talent and to bring together the best people to cater to an increasingly diverse array of customer needs,” Zobel says.

It has also enabled Ayala to build capital and bring in some of the world’s most respected corporations–including Mitsubishi Corp., Singapore Telecom and Development Bank of Singapore, among others–as strategic partners.

With its “human capital”–a highly empowered organization–and strong, global partners, the Ayala group today includes four listed corporations (Ayala Land, Bank of Philippine Islands, Globe Telecom and Manila Water) and accounts for about one-third of the Philippine Stock Exchange index.

For the corporate and other triumphs, Zobel pays tribute, first, to his father, Jaime Zobel de Ayala–who was voted Management Man of the Year in 1987–for decentralizing the group management structure in the 1980s and building the management foundations of present-day Ayala.

Second, he cites the leadership sharing he has with his brother, Fernando–“in an arrangement that it not very common in public, private or family institutions…The Ayala of today would not be where it is without the leadership Fernando has provided on myriad fronts and for his equal participation in decisions I have made.”

And he acknowledges the group’s organization–and the macro context in which it functions.

“Leadership,” he says, “depends on the corporate context, economic history and organizational capability of any institution.”

“Beneath the bright surface of performance of any business leader is the solid substance built by a longer history of a larger community of talented, motivated and disciplined executives that made such performance possible,” he adds.

The Ayala group “collective wisdom, drive and vision shape and constantly refresh my own,” Zobel says. “At the most senior level, we take pride in working as colleagues and partners, whether one works at the holding company or at the operating level.

“We like to encourage a spirit of collegiality, sharing and constructive criticism. The best ideas that flow out are certainly not always mine and the many backgrounds and experiences of our executive rank are too valuable to be kept limited in specific roles.”

Ayala’s evolution

The Ayala group itself has changed in character over the years, Zobel observes. In the past century, what had started as an agriculture- and trading-based group grew into a major Philippine manufacturing and services concern.

The Ayala group started investing in sectors that have become its core businesses well before Zobel joined it in 1981. It pioneered in real estate development in 1960 and modern banking in 1970. It went into telecommunications in 1974 and electronics manufacture in 1988. As its platform for social development contribution, it established in 1961 what has become Ayala Foundation.

And then, “the world changed on us,” Zobel recalls. “Competition in real estate exploded. The banking and telecom sectors were liberalized and new markets were created by the resurgence of new technologies. Globalization altered most of the landscape … And corporate social responsibility moved into the center of business concerns.”

“History is not destiny,” Zobel says. “The challenge for a company with a long history is how to keep fresh the energies on which it was founded while retaining the enduring values that define it. For the Ayala group, the challenge has been how to keep succeeding in changing times by building on the fundamental strengths with which we began.”

Today the Ayala group focuses on three major businesses–real estate, financial services and telecom–plus emergent businesses in electronics manufacturing, technology investments, water distribution, automotive dealerships, international real estate markets and business processing outsourcing.

Zobel is also chair of Globe Telecom, Bank of the Philippine Islands and Integrated Microelectronics Inc.; vice chair of Ayala Land Inc.; and co-vice chair of Ayala Foundation. He is a member of the JP Morgan International Council, Mitsubishi Corp. International Advisory Committee, Toshiba International Advisory Group, Asia Business Council, Harvard University Asia Center Advisory Committee and the board of trustees of the Asian Institute of Management.

He also serves on the national council of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-US), and chairs WWF Philippines.

The involvement in the environmental movement is one of the ways Zobel demonstrates his personal profound concern for the planet and future generations. And among underprivileged children in the Philippines, is perhaps the most recognizable face of Children’s Hour, of which he is a trustee.

In all likelihood, it is a concern that the Harvard Business School award-giving council shares.

Source: Ayala Land Inc. Article Listing

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